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Rutgers professor discusses air quality amid coronavirus pandemic

<p>Monica Mazurek, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said due to the pandemic, air pollutants are approximately one-third to one-half less than they were a year ago.</p>

Monica Mazurek, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said due to the pandemic, air pollutants are approximately one-third to one-half less than they were a year ago.

Monica Mazurek, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has worked in her field for more than 30 years. She spoke on the air quality amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“With everything shut down, we see that the emissions sources of the criteria pollutants, like fine particles and gases, are much less,” she said. “If we compare today to a year ago today, we would see that all of these pollutants generally are a third to a half less today.”

The reduction in these pollutants is directly related to the fact that fewer vehicle miles are being traveled and the hours of corporations and businesses are being reduced greatly, Mazurek said. It is important to maintain good air quality and reduce air pollution for public and environmental safety.

Mazurek spoke specifically about the criteria air pollutant PM2.5 and pointed out its dangers as one of the major sources of fine particle emissions. She said PM2.5 is prevalent in diesel emissions from buses and heavy-duty truck engines, both of which students are exposed to on the Rutgers campus.

A recent Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study also showed that COVID-19 illness can be related to the chronic exposure to PM2.5, Mazurek said.

“Where we have the most densely populated areas, people have chronic illness such as childhood asthma, heart attacks, cardiovascular disease in addition to respiratory disease,” she said. “In the case now of a pandemic like COVID-19, those populations get sicker and more deaths happen.”

Mazurek said she highly advocates for Rutgers students to wear PM2.5 masks to protect themselves from the dangers of air pollution from diesel emissions and has argued Rutgers should move towards powering buses using natural gas instead.

“I think this is the new normal for us, to think about what we’re breathing and how important it is to be proactive with our personal health,” she said.

Although right now we are experiencing good air quality, we are going to see these pollutants go back up to where they were once life goes back to “normal,” Mazurek said.

She said that this situation should be taken as a learning experience to get us thinking about how we could source our energy in ways that allow for cleaner air quality. 

Mazurek said last year we as a society traveled more than 3 trillion on-road miles, and for every gallon of gas that we consume, 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted. She said CO2 is a pollutant not currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and its concentrations are still going up even during the pandemic.

We have to start thinking about higher fuel efficiency, Mazurek said. In 2012, the Obama administration set the standard that by 2025 vehicles should reach 52 miles per gallon, and Mazurek believes that this is an important standard to maintain.

“(This standard) reduces our emissions of criteria pollutants per mile (and) reduces our emissions of CO2 because we're getting higher fuel efficiency,” she said.

Mazurek said consumers have choices that they can make regarding the miles per gallon of vehicles, how many miles they travel and switching to electric vehicles in order to keep the environment in mind.

“(Approximately) 92% of all of the energy that’s required in our transportation sector comes from petroleum,” Mazurek said. “We really have to think about how we source our vehicle miles, transitioning to higher efficiency vehicles by 2025.”

Mazurek said another major industry involved in the discussion of air quality is the electrical generation industry.

She said that New Jersey has done a really good job at switching over from coal to natural gas, according to data from the United States Energy Information Administration. Solar energy has also become a popular alternative for clean energy, and NJ has offered incentives for people to make the switch, Mazurek said. 

“Rutgers has done such a great job with its proactive energy sourcing strategy,” she said. 

She mentioned the Cogeneration plant on Busch campus that works to reduce emissions while producing electricity, as well as the great solar investment in efforts to seek cleaner energy. The Rutgers solar farm is also one of the two largest solar energy producers in the state, Mazurek said.

She said that although President Donald J. Trump's administration has reversed almost 80 environmental guidelines, individual states may still follow previous guidelines or create better ones to help protect the environment. 

“We need to get our reliance on petroleum and our transportation miles shifted over to clean energy, non-carbon, low-carbon emissions,” Mazurek said. “We are protecting ourselves and our communities with better air quality.”

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